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The Uncanny Expo Milano 2015

Randall Honold

Computer game designers describe the “uncanny valley” as the place where the look of animated creatures becomes disconcerting to us. We’re okay with caricatures or extreme realism, but the narrow in-between can be downright creepy. Recall that well before the printed circuit, Sigmund Freud described the uncanny as the “strangely familiar,” which, once we start becoming aware of it, seemingly haunts us at every turn.

I was in an uncanny place recently, a place both not real enough and all-too real at the same time: Expo Milano 2015: Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life. Its intention is to be an axis mundi for sustainability. However, the genius loci of the place isn’t represented by the classical figure bearing a cornucopia, drinking bowl, and snake; instead, awaiting the visitor are twenty-first century symbols which perhaps reveal more than intended by expo organizers.

I had never been to an expo. One of the first gifts I can remember receiving though – as a four-year old – was a commemorative coin from the 1964 New York World’s Fair. My godmother brought it back just for me and I can still see its golden shine and feel its raised-line image of the Unisphere. It was a coincidence that my spouse and I were going to be in Italy this summer, and since Milan was on our itinerary, I figured why not check out the expo? Before leaving I had seen news reports about protests and read an article here and there reviewing the event (and this one appeared after my return) so I had a general sense of its context, contradictions, and controversy. I expected meh and got it aplenty. But it also delivered moments of disbelief, engagement, frustration, and hope. Not to mention awesome artisanal gelato flavored with single-source chocolate from the Ivory Coast, and a bar of ginseng soap from that most exotic of places to an American – North Korea. It was, overall, a singular experience of the ecological uncanny – a strangely familiar experience of neoliberal flat-world claims colliding with environmental realities.

A few riffs, pics, and recollections:

You still see graffiti like this in a lot of places around Milan, months after the protests that took place on the opening day of the Expo, May 1. (Protesters got an unexpected two-fer with this falling on May Day; it’s open to speculation whether corporate sponsors were sticking it in the eye of the counterculture or oblivious to the valence of the date.) Other popular images include the raised fist of solidarity against the expo and equating event organizers with Mafiosi.

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Milan was a pioneer in urban bike sharing with their “BikeMi” system. And thousands of residents are moving about the city all the time on their own bikes. So, naturally, I figured that biking to the expo would be the way to go. I asked the concierge about a rental for 10km trip from my hotel to the grounds but the shop he called refused, worried they’d lose their asset because there wasn’t a safe place to park it there. I found this perplexing, but when I exited the train stop – newly built for the expo – and headed toward the main entrance, I saw it was true. This is the inexcusable solution intrepid bikers had to resort to:

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I visited on a Tuesday, which I didn’t expect to be the day of the week with the highest attendance, but I was surprised when I entered and observed an approximately one-to-one ratio between staff/guides and paying guests. The situation inside the huge Zero Pavilion – a kind of introduction to humanity’s relationship to food by way of dioramas, jumbotrons, and interactive kiosks – was the same. Were the reports of dismal turnout I’d been reading true? Or were people ending it all here, like Edward G. Robinson in “Soylent Green,” in front of moving images of “nature?”

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I also puzzled over plastic livestock all apparently heading out the door…

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…but on the midway their meaning and destiny became clear.

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To do justice to all the participating nations’ buildings alone would take at least three full days; I admit I spent only five hours at the whole expo. The countries are grouped mainly by the predominant types of food produced there. “Fruits and Legumes,” for instance. But India, the world’s largest producer of legumes by far, aspires to a higher status than its cluster-mates Benin, Guinea, and Kyrgyzstan. Thus its pavilion stands apart. As do the structures that represent China, the U.S., and, of course, Italy as home team. The organization is loose, in other words. It all makes for randomized stroll, as if following a world map put through a blender. To my inexpert eye the architecture commonly displays vernacular elements (Qatar); often conveys emerging or power or aspirations thereto (Kazakhstan); sometimes pulls out all the stops (Angola); and occasionally fails at ground level despite its thematic ambition (South Korea’s is supposed to look like traditional ceramic cookware):

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National pride is everywhere expressed primarily through food, secondarily through energy, and after that anything counts. The French have a lingerie display. Indonesians perform dance routines, the Czechs blast europop, and the Dutch exude cool charm with their caravan food trucks. The tension between sustaining the whole earth and rational use of the one world’s resources is omnipresent, to wit:

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The inside of the model supermercato looks like any other high-end grocery, alas:

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And there were people actually buying food to take home! Mind you, it was 95 degrees Fahrenheit, the nearest exit was a 45-minute walk away, and out the door was going fresh dairy and meat, frozen convenience food, etc. Incomprehensible.

It was at about this point that I began to search for redemption. Like an oasis came the Iranian pavilion. It’s a lovely, modest, light structure that shelters garden plots of herbs essential to traditional Persian cuisine. Rice, spices, and cookware are for sale. They got it just right.

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Then I found, tucked away in the “Islands” cluster, the poignant Maldives display. It’s a lone room, silent, with photographs of indigenous undersea life and island culture. The message was obvious: all of this beauty will be gone soon, when the rising oceans inundate the lands. Nothing more needed.

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Heartened, I trekked to the Slow Food section, what I wanted to see most of all. Nearly off the map at the far end of the park – marginalized in every sense – are its three open-air, destined-for-reuse, wooden structures. Resembling the shelter buildings we see in U.S. public parks, they housed a library, performance space, café, and meaningful displays that summarize extraordinarily well the effects of mechanized agriculture on the earth and its citizens.

I couldn’t help reflecting on how slow food was anomalous yet central to the expo – perhaps the most uncanny experience of my day. I sat in the library for a good while wondering again: Who is this expo for? Are any hearts and minds being changed? What can the already the converted (like me) get out of it? Is this venue the right medium for these messages? Can it scale? Could it travel? Does ROI as a measure even apply here, and how would it be calculated? It was sitting here that it occurred to me the concept of the “uncanny” might be the best one to capture the experience of Expo Milano 2015. The expo’s sensual excesses reminded me that the uncanny comes to us aesthetically, today. It’s there, haunting us, in the what’s always around us – plants, animals, water, air, sunlight, fossil fuels. We coexist with these familiar things so intimately that, strangely, even though they touch our lives in multiple ways every day, we don’t pay attention to them.

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I got up and headed to the exit thinking, if nothing else, I want a big fat corn dude at my side from now on.

 

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Ethics, Aesthetics, Ecologies: Part II

LARRMP

Popular neuroscience suggests that affect underlies ethical decision. Though not all of the contemporary brain-obsessed arguments are compelling, traditional psychology, at least since William James, has forwarded similar hypotheses. Scholars of rhetoric also recognize the force of the pathos appeal, and have done so for thousands of years. If our emotional responses impact our ethical decisions and aesthetic response is also related to the emotions, then ethics and aesthetics may be more closely related than contemporary scholars in the liberal arts and sciences have generally assumed or asserted.

But what do we assume about the basic nature of the relationship between aesthetic response and affect? Do we merely love the beautiful, or do we find beauty in that which we love? For example, do we become attached to a natural place, because it is picturesque or because we associate it with meaningful events and other attachments?   Or, if such responses are “inherited,” either because they are instinctual or culturally conditioned, do ethical and aesthetic values co-emerge?

Related to these questions are the backward and forward looking problems of environmental degradation and generational amnesia. On one hand environmental degradation suggests that we may become less attached to wild places in the future as they are diminished and or degraded. On the other hand, generational amnesia suggests that our aesthetic standards may also be degraded. In a twenty-first century urban environment, for example, a small, roof-top garden may have more value (affective and aesthetic), by sheer contrast with its surroundings, than a large vegetable or flower garden in a more traditional, rural environment. Still, as we become increasingly overwhelmed with technology, it may also be that our appreciation for place and natural beauty is diminishing overall, as our early memories and attachments are less likely to be formed out of doors. And this trend may be contrary to an ethical imperative of caring for more places and more creatures. But what if an ethic of inclusiveness included caring about, even loving the ugly?

Institute for Nature and Culture co-founder and theorist of restoration ecology, Bill Jordan has raised the issue of restoring species that pose a threat to human interests, even a threat to human life—rattle snakes, for example (Making Nature Whole, 5). Jordan’s approach contrasts significantly with the idea of restoring “natural capital.” Is the latter approach truly ethical if it primarily serves human interests? Can we be sure that we even understand our own interests—that we can predict the future in this sense? Could a more inclusive ethical approach address this problem? And how would such an ethic relate to aesthetics?

The concepts of generational amnesia and degraded environmental brought to my mind the example of the L. A. River. The river (qua river) ceased to exist when it was replaced with a massive concrete channel built in the 1950’s and 1960’s.   Angelinos literally forgot the river because it disappeared, almost without a trace. Instead water flowed into and out of “the wash.” The mostly dry, concrete channel became an icon of the apocalypse, in Hollywood films such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and Escape from LA (1996), and indeed complex ecosystems, as worlds, were destroyed by this massive human intervention. But somehow the river was not completely forgotten.

In the late 1990’s a group of visionary citizens conceived of the absurd notion of restoring the river in a hybrid fashion. From these early initiatives emerged the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan.[1] What I found most remarkable about this plan, when I examined it, were the rich renderings (future simulations) of the river as an ecosystem, a place for recreation, and a cultural venue—a place in which to form attachments. In the past few years the restoration has achieved gradual but marked success with Angelinos now actually kayaking in certain areas.

So how did such an ugly place become the object of attention and care? Did citizens become interested in the “river” because they saw a potential for beauty, or did it become beautiful because it received care and attention? I’m not sure these are answerable or even meaningful alternatives.   What may be meaningful, though, is the implication that ethical decision and action require us to look beyond surface features to the spirit of a place—the spirit of a creature. The potential for beauty may be in everything we behold, as a function of our care and attention.

Image Reference: Los Angels River Revitalization Master Plan: Chapter 2, page 4

http://boe.lacity.org/lariverrmp/CommunityOutreach/pdf/

[1] LARRMP, http://boe.lacity.org/lariverrmp/

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The Sound and The Sample

The DePaul Humanities Center

“LEND ME YOUR EARS: THE SOUND OF THE HUMANITIES” SERIES

presents

THE SOUND and THE SAMPLE

 What does it mean to take a sound and remove it from its original context, place it into a new moment, and generate novel meaning from that? Capturing a percussive beat, a bit of an old LP, the vibration of a stringed instrument, a stolen moment of a bird in a meadow—all of these instances of sampling something and then doing something unique with that sample raise issues about what a sound is and what it means for a sound to be taken up and used anew—for art, for science, and for everything that is both or neither.

Join an interdisciplinary panel of scholars and artists for a night of innovative performance and analysis that sounds the depths of the ethics, ontology, and aesthetics of what it means to hear and what it means to sample a world that sounds.

FEATURING:

  • The Speers, “Mrs. Dalloway Excerpt”
  • Liam Heneghan, “Echoes from the Little Stream of Death”
  • Beverly Fre$h and The Wild American Dogs, with Greg Scott

“Inside of the Night—The Crooner, The Bingo Caller, and You.”

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

7:00 – 7:30 p.m.

Cortelyou Commons

2324 N. Fremont St., Chicago

(1/2 block east of the Fullerton L stop)

This event is free and open to the public.

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Shifting Ground

(photo by Randall Honold)

(text by Christine Skolnik)

low tide

At low tide

This shifting ground

shaped by water

wind

astral and other bodies

calls and responds

reflects on our image

reflecting our days

marvels at the seeming source

of distinctions

What numberless

wondering worlds

are obscured

by this

bright orb?

What grounds them?

Image Source: Dylar Addict, low tide

https://dylaraddict.wordpress.com/2014/10/22/low-tide/

Dylar Addict, Home

https://dylaraddict.wordpress.com/

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Does Carbon + Humans x (Progress)10 = Suicide Narcissus?

1280px-John_William_Waterhouse_-_Echo_and_Narcissus_-_Google_Art_Project

by Jeff Tangel

(A version of this article was previously published on the author’s website The Tecumseh Project.)

There’s been a raft of news stories and reports about climate change lately, re-sounding alarms once silenced. Maybe the emerging cacophony will be enough to get us to cut carbon emissions and begin building rafts that will float us over the onrushing wave of consequences we’ve so long denied. I’m not optimistic.

My best argument for anthropogenic climate change has always been a simple observation: in what amounts to a geologic eye-blink in time, humans have reshuffled the nature-deck by transferring billions of tons of carbon from beneath the earth’s surface to the rest of the ecosphere. I would explain to naysayers that this switch-about is tantamount to tearing the carpet off your floor and putting it on the ceiling and claiming the room is no different—even that it looks great.  Or worse: that it’s supposed to be that way. Try making that work on popular remodeling show “Love It or List It.” Well, this usually gets people to think, but I’m unaware that such a cogent analogy has created any new climate activists.

It may be a problem of epistemology, compounded by a particular notion of progress, both held so dear by most of us in the so-called developed world. That is, our most fundamental understanding of the world revolves almost solely around ourselves, with that self-absorption informing all our actions. Thus, whatever we humans do well is generally considered a good—and in the main what we do is aim at “progress” through wealth creation and consumption. Even though most of that wealth goes to the very few, nearly all of us believe the progress paradigm is natural; for the most part we can’t imagine anything else. And Nature itself is little more than a resource for accumulating wealth, or providing a temporary recuperative respite from the exhausting pursuit of that progress.   Such myopic hubris is fraught with problems, as any parent of a teenager can tell you.

The story of Narcissus is an apt description of our collective behavior.[i] If this has put you off, please hold your fire. I don’t think most of us want to behave this way, and would behave quite differently if we could. Narcissism is a pejorative term because it violates our values.

I’ve recently re-read the Seattle Times article, Sea Change: The Pacific’s Perilous Turn (Sep. 11, 2013) [ii], an investigation of the increasing acidification of the ocean (spoiler alert: it’s worse than we think). The article highlights the work of two scientists at James Cook University in Australia who conducted an experiment with those cute little clown fish you may have seen (darting here and there, in and out of reef flora) on any number of aquatic nature shows.  They’re naturally shy little critters, inclined to hide from predators, and this helps keep them alive.

In order to examine the effects of a more carbonized ocean, the researchers increased the amount of carbon in a tank and watched for any change in these darling little creatures’ behavior.  And boy did they find a big one.  These normally reclusive cuties became disoriented, and swam about insouciantly, right at predators. It’s as if they had smoked a joint in a foxhole and wandered onto a battlefield waving cheerfully, “Dude, what’s up?” (True story, from my neighbor, Vietnam, ca 1969:  stoned while on guard duty in a perimeter foxhole, and struck by the beauty of reconnaissance flares, he stood up to get a better look and got shot in the buttocks—Purple Heart and home).

So I thought: Might we all be in a tank with excess carbon—stoned as it were, on CO2?  We have been breathing the odorless and colorless gas for some time now—increasingly so, exponentially so, since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. How could we know?  As the saying goes, you can’t ask a fish about water. Maybe carbon anesthetizes us—or maybe it anesthetizes us and makes us want more carbon.  One way to look at “progress” is that ever since the Industrial Revolution we can’t seem to get enough of the stuff—we need and want more and more.  That’s what economic growth is. Hmmm . . . if we are marching headlong to a precipice, then maybe it’s because this carbon has gone to our heads.  It’s a positive feedback loop, just like the melting polar ice caps and thawing tundra!  Our consumption relies on carbon, either directly, or imbedded in products that we buy constantly and dispose of, constantly, to buy some more.  In a way we’re carbon junkies. And more: perhaps our progress paradigm is not a reasoned path with innate merit, but instead a form of disabling intoxication. Maybe we’re addicted to admiring ourselves in the mirror because we have become cognitively impaired.

In the same way we can’t ask a fish about water, we can’t ask Narcissus about his brother, sister, the fish in the pond, the birds in the trees and so on.  We certainly can’t ask him what’s on the other side of the pond—or about tomorrow.  He’s stoned, and not just a little.  (Like, totally, man.)  He’s glued to the program and takes no notice.  He’ll do the hokey-pokey and the chicken-dance all around the foxhole if need be, just as long as he can keep watching himself, the star of the show. Pass the Doritos. [iii]

A cursory review of the science suggests an interesting hypothesis. CO2 acidifies the blood, just like the oceans, a condition called acidosis, which is a poisoning marked by rapid breathing, cardiac arrhythmia and impaired consciousness or confusion, all of which sound to me like an agitated state of inebriation.   At high levels CO2 is an asphyxiant, ultimately leading to shock, which is the body shutting itself down. And interestingly, this is a life-threatening problem because there is a positive feedback mechanism. When shock sets in it increases in severity—towards death—unless treated. [iv]

Holy tomatoes.  Doesn’t everyone feel like their heart is racing a bit, our breathing more rapid as we try to make our way nowadays?  Life has become so complicated. This is progress? And aren’t most of us in a mild state of shock, a bit dizzy, unable to come to grips with war, poverty, inequality, joblessness, ecological demise, and any number of other stressors that we come in contact with everyday?

Are we so carbon poisoned, figuratively and perhaps literally, that we can’t see what we’re doing?  Are we now in a stew-pot of our own making such that we can’t reason, feel, or respond sensibly, and so swim like anesthetized clown fish towards our own demise? [v] Could this be why the issues of climate change and ecological collapse can’t gain any real traction? Are we so drunk on carbon that we will follow this notion of progress anywhere—especially if it feeds the obsessions of the wealthy and leaves us all heart racing and anxious?

Recent research by Paul Piff and others at UC Berkeley[vi] concluded that the wealthy are generally more narcissistic than people of lesser means. So maybe they are just more susceptible to the effects of carbon—that is, more inclined towards addiction—than normal people. Aren’t we all emulating them to some degree, though? And aren’t there other, better progress paradigms? Most of us, and Nature, surely deserve something better. Why don’t we talk about that?

In the meantime, maybe, we should get scientists on the neuro-carbon-case, toute de suite.  Most of us don’t want to be like Narcissus and these positive feedback loops are a wicked problem.  Carbon—the exhaust from progress and wealth creation—may be the wind beneath our Icarus wings.

[i] The term “Suicide Narcissus” (in the title) comes from an art show at The Renaissance Society, Hyde Park Chicago held in 2013.

http://www.renaissancesociety.org/exhibitions/suicide-narcissus/

[ii] Sea Change: The Pacific’s Perilous Turn: <http://apps.seattletimes.com/reports/sea-change/2013/sep/11/pacific-ocean-perilous-turn-overview/> (Well worth reading.)

[iii] (I’m really being unfair to marijuana smokers here—some of whom are my friends—and for the record, they stay away from most chemistry projects by Frito Lay, et al.  And they don’t watch much TV.  Their herb-use often enables a certain perspicacity not frequently found in common culture.  And, well, that’s the point, man.  So here I offer a second hypothesis: add to the litany of medical marijuana uses that it may well be an antidote to CO2).

[iv] See: National Center for Biotechnology Information, part of NIH <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16499405> and
Medline Plus, Nat Library of Medicine, NIH. <http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000335.htm>

[v] Thanks Bill Jordan for “anesthetized clownfish,” very funny…

[vi] See: http://paulpiff.wix.com/paulpiff#!press/c1n0f for links to writings. And this PBS Newshour segment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=IuqGrz-Y_Lc (9 min.)

Image Source:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Echo_and_Narcissus_(Waterhouse_painting)

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My love/hate relationship with Paddy Woodworth’s Our Once and Future Planet

By Lauren Umek*

I’m writing this review from my perspective as a PhD candidate studying restoration ecology and as an occasional-to-regular practitioner of restoration in the Chicago area.

I love this book.

And I hate this book.

This dichotomy is present throughout my reading of a Once and Future Planet as well as my regular thoughts on the topic of restoration. In general, I’m reminded that our interactions with nature themselves are bi-modal. Our species interacts with nature through exploitation but we also work hard to undo the destruction resulting from this exploitation. Our positive interactions with nature may occur while on a stroll through a blooming prairie in summer or colorful, senescing woodland in fall are in contrast to our negative encounters with nature; where we brave sweltering heat, blistering cold, and are annoyed by mosquito bites and poison ivy rashes.

It is with this dichotomous theme that Paddy explores restoration. We are forced to think of nature and culture, of science and practice, of success and failure, of knowns and unknowns, of support and opposition, of short and long term perspectives and most importantly, of the answerable and unanswerable questions.

I love this book, because, at least in the Chicago-centric chapter, from my, albeit biased perspective, science is the hero.  (In fact, there is a paragraph that I selfishly interpret to indicate that my dissertation, looking at ecological outcomes of various durations of restoration at a landscape scale, will change the world.) It is clear throughout all of the chapters, that there are still so many questions to be answered. Thus, objective, well replicated research are essential in effective restoration practice and outcomes. This reminds us that restoration ecology, as a science is still in an adolescent, if not infantile stage, without a significant Wright Brothers-eqsue breakthrough.

I love this book because it reminds me that I’m not alone. By showing a global perspective on a topic that I’ve had such a personal, as well as professional connection with, makes it obvious, that while I know quite a lot about restoration, that I don’t know nearly enough. It also reminds me that that there is a planet full of other people that are thinking about and working on similar, if not identical issues of what, when, where, why and how we should restore.

I hate this book because it makes me uncomfortable. It makes me think about things that I am not traditionally trained to think about as a scientist. I am forced to question my understanding of ecosystems and how I interpret both basic and complex components and interactions in nature.

As a scientist, I collect data in search of the “truth” of the natural world. What I rarely consider, is that there are other “truths” of nature that I can’t measure, can’t quantify and can’t describe. Even if I could, (as I recognize that my colleagues in the social sciences explore exactly these issues) I am forced to consider that what I might find to be ecologically appropriate, might not be culturally, economically or temporally appropriate.

The considerations we face as practitioners and scholars of restoration are not all quantifiable. I cannot graph or calculate a p-value to describe how someone feels about nature let alone reconcile how, when, where, why and if we should restore it. And even more perplexing to me is what if it is that social connection with nature that is what is in need of restoration, not just the ecosystem itself? Surely the restoration of one’s connection with nature cannot be restored with the application of herbicide, seeds or even fire.

The topics covered in this book remind us that restoration is a relatively new practice, at least given this name and restoration ecology is an even newer science. This means that while almost any question we ask, will yield a new and hopefully interesting answer, it also means that there is a lot of uncharted territory. We’re working hard, but we’re not REALLY sure if our work is working, or if our goals are even really appropriate or sustainable. Paddy makes us consider our ecological as well as social, temporal and global context when considering the topic and practice of restoration.

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“It is what it is” or things T. W. Adorno would have hated

 

Adorno.2

 

By Rick Elmore

There are few phrases I dislike more than “it is what it is.” It grates me something awful. However, if there is one person that would have hated it more than any of us, it’s T. W. Adorno. In fact, the one redeeming attribute of this phrase is that it perfectly highlights the central stakes of Adorno’s work. I’m not being hyperbolic. If you want to understand what critical theory is all about, one way to explain it is to say that critical theory is a fundamental rejection of “it is what it is” and all that phrase implies. But first things first, let’s revisit the horror of “it is what it is.”

People probably can’t help the occasional recourse to banal tautologies. Phrases like “it is what it is” have a certain sports radio, ‘works in almost any conversation’ kind of appeal. It’s like describing a team as “strong up front” or affirming a statement with “you can’t stop a train.” No one really knows exactly what you mean, but it sounds just concrete enough that everyone goes home happy. Yet, what’s truly pernicious about this phrase and what connects it to Adorno’s work isn’t that it’s tautological or unimaginative, but rather that it is a shorthand way of naturalizing the current state of the world.

When someone says “it is what it is,” what they really mean is that this thing, whatever it may be, is an intractable fact of reality: unchanging and unchangeable. It is what it is. That part of the world cannot be otherwise. It’s necessary, not in the least open to the contingencies of history or desire. You might as well stop thinking about it. “It is what it is” marks the parts of the world that cannot be other than they are, and, in so doing, it implicitly marks the limits of what is worthy of thought. Now as a general rule, I follow the environmental philosopher Karen Warren in thinking that anything one has to take the time to say is “natural” or “necessary” probably isn’t, since if it was, you wouldn‘t need to say so. However, claims to naturalness are also one of the central concerns of Adorno’s work.

Enlightenment, capitalism, fundamental ontology, the culture industry, nature, these are all logics that Adorno argues work on one level or another to make what is historically contingent appear ahistorical and necessary. Thus, the worry over the phrase “it is what it is” is itself the fundamental worry of critical theory. Just take the example of Adorno’s critique of Heidegger (steady…we can do this).

Like the concern for “it is what it is,” Adorno’s critique of Heidegger focuses on the worry that Heidegger’s fundamental ontology ends up naturalizing the world. This naturalization occurs through Heidegger’s notion of the “ontological difference,” that is, the difference between the existence or “being” of any particular thing and the quality or fact of “Being” (with a big B) that all existing things share insofar as they exist. Now this might sound complicated, but it’s actually very common sense. Heidegger is just pointing out that in a world of existing things there is a difference between the existence of any one thing and the quality or characteristic of Existence that all things share insofar as they exist. However for Adorno, Heidegger’s insistence on this strict separation leads him to dark dark places, like naturalizing Nazism for example. So starting from the ontological difference here is how Adorno argues you or Heidegger can naturalize the current political, social, and economic character of your world in five easy steps.

1. Given the strict separation of the ontological difference, you argue that one cannot define Being (the kind that all things share) nor make it into a concept, since any qualifying of Being (giving it a particular characteristic or quality) would violate the ontological difference. It would make what cannot be particular, particular.
2. You state that this unqualifiable notion of Being is essential to all existing things, since without it they wouldn’t exist at all.
3. You contend that since what is essential to all entities is their relation to your unqualifiable notion of Being, all the other particular, material, specific, and historically contingent aspects of these entities must be inessential or accidental, since for these characteristics to be essential (part of your unqualifiable notion of Being), they would have to be essential to the existence of all entities, and they obviously can’t be that.
4. Having made it this far, you go on to argue that your unqualifiable notion of Being, since it is essential to all entities, must be the truest expression of their lived experience, as otherwise it wouldn’t be essential to them in any meaningful way. Hence, it turns out that all those particular, material, specific, and historically contingent aspects of an entity’s existence that we thought were accidental are actually the very expression of their Being in a grand sense.
5. Hence, you conclude that through the logic of the ontological difference, the current aspects of every entity’s existence, the social, political, material, and economic state of their world, is the very expression of Being. The world as it is is the necessary, ontological essence of what it means to exist at all. Or, put another way, you’ve just shown that the world, as it appears right now, is the only world that could have ever appeared. It is what it is. Now whether or not Adorno is right about Heidegger (and I think he is in general), it’s certainly the case that there is nothing more fundamental to the project of critical theory than resisting, at every turn, the notion that the world is what it is.

One of the things for me that remains crucial about critical theory and Adorno’s work in particular is that it reminds us unrelentingly that the logic of claims like “it is what it is” are not only problematic insofar as they naturalize some contingent aspect of the world, but also because they implicitly naturalize the whole framework in which that contingent aspect appears natural. When one says “it is what it is” today, one is not simply stating that whatever one is talking about is natural and necessary, but also that capitalism is necessary and natural, that climate change is unavoidable, that the extinction event we are in the midst of could not have been otherwise, that LeBron really does belong in Cleveland, etc. Adorno reminds us that one of the major impediments to progressive and radical thought, particularly on the environment, is not only the inability to really believe that the world can be different, but also the inability to think through the radical interconnectedness of our material lives. Hence, it’s precisely because the world isn’t what it is, that the world still needs critical theory.

Image Source: http://blogs.elpais.com/muro-de-sonido/2013/09/música-para-viejóvenes.html

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